ATLANTIC CITY — Velvet Wright loved her tiny, red row home on North Tennessee Avenue.
It’s where she ran a small nonprofit for 20 to 30 Atlantic City youth called Taking it to the Streets, and where, across the street, she would play wall ball with her siblings as a kid.
But the 62-year-old said she had to leave.
After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Wright said her landlord didn’t have the money or insurance to quickly repair the badly flooded property, where mold and mildew were growing.
She was forced to move to Egg Harbor Township, abandoning the “little island where (she) enjoyed life.”
“It pushed people out of Atlantic City,” she said of the devastating storm.
The stretch of 10 row homes in the 3rd Ward is still in disarray. At least one is on the city’s abandoned properties list, boarded up and with at least a foot of grass growing in front.
Wright’s home appears occupied, but she’s unsure what happened there since she left.
It’s a problem that existed long before Sandy. But in a city with an aging housing stock that’s trying to attract new residents, the storm added to blight in available houses, and took some off the rolls entirely. And Atlantic City isn’t unique in this — New Orleans continues to face a similar housing problem nearly 14 years after Hurricane Katrina.
The solution, some say, may be rebuilding entire blocks, using nonprofits to reclaim empty houses and continuing to amend grant programs for low-income homeowners.
Carol Ruffu, president of the Chelsea Neighborhood Association, says more than 500 abandoned properties were counted by the city three years after the hurricane, though it’s unclear what percentage are empty because of Sandy. That number was never documented.
Throughout the city, namely Bungalow Park, she said, properties were abandoned by those who couldn’t navigate confusing state and federal grant programs, and remain empty today.
According to FEMA, there are 361 homes throughout the city that are still more than 50 percent damaged, of the more than 12,000 total households that saw major or severe damage.
And years later, Ruffu contends, necessary tear-downs still haven’t occurred throughout the resort.
Atlantic City wasn’t among the top 20 municipalities with the most demolished housing units after the storm in 2013 or in 2018, according to Department of Community Affairs data.
Margate and Brigantine, two shore towns only miles away, saw more demolition permits for both years.
“(Vacant houses) have been sitting there for six years, and they’ve just gotten worse and worse and worse,” Ruffu said. “There have been so many people who have passed away and never got back into their homes.”
And even if buildings damaged by the storm are now occupied, the conditions inside may be substandard, said city Licensing and Inspections Director Dale Finch.
The city can only inspect rental units, not single-family homes.
“Some we haven’t looked at in years,” Finch said. “We can only inspect rental units when there’s a change in occupancy. ... There could be mold, mildew.”
Rescuing them, though, may require new approaches: rebuilding entire streets rather than individual properties and taking another look at the rules surrounding grant programs.
Elevating or rebuilding such structures — like those along Ohio and Texas avenues — is usually difficult because they share walls with other structures. Raising a single row house sandwiched between two others could cost up to $145 per square foot, significantly more than other types of buildings, said Steve Hauck, of S.J. Hauck House Movers.
“You’re practically building a new home,” Hauck said. “And a lot of the row homes in Atlantic City were built in the 1930s and were already falling apart.”
Owners of row houses could “elevate by abandonment,” Hauck said, meaning keep the first floor as a garage and build a new level above the existing unit.
Another option: Every homeowner on the street could secure funds and lift their house in unison. Hauck recalls only two instances where his company was hired to do either in Atlantic City.
Grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the DCA can be used to lift a block of homes if all approved owners agree to the program’s conditions, but that’s difficult to accomplish.
Jim Rutala agrees using grants to fix entire blocks and infrastructure would be most efficient. But he said that would require a hands-on approach. The state and federal government, he said, would have to target specific streets and lead the coordination among the neighbors, by sending letters or setting up local meetings.
In total, the DCA has given more than $46 million to Atlantic City residents to either lift or repair homes through its Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation and Low-to-Moderate Income Homeowners Rebuilding programs.
“We tried to work with adjacent homes and get approval to lift both sides,” Rutala said. “We were saying, ‘Don’t fix one house at a time, fix whole streets.’”
Rutala says another roadblock homeowners faced were FEMA and DCA rules that require homeowners to pay for repairs and get reimbursed by the state after the work is complete. Under the DCA’s program, applicants are paid up to 50 percent of the cost of the grant upfront, but some who needed additional funds upfront were forced to drop out of the program.
Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the DCA, said the money is disbursed over time to ensure rebuilding projects are “in compliance with federal standards.” She said the state continuously makes changes to the program to help homeowners, such as a $50 million allocation earlier this year specifically for people who have stalled construction.
“We’re always asking, ‘How can we change the program to make it as easy as possible for people to get back home?’” Ryan said.
Still, one standout solution lies outside the government and private homeowners. Local, on-the-ground nonprofits could play a large role in repairing abandoned homes from Sandy and getting them on the housing market again, some say.
It’s a strategy one group in Camden is trying. Though the city wasn’t affected by Sandy, it faces a similar problem, with nearly 900 abandoned homes as of 2016.
For 30 years, St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society has been renovating damaged “zombie homes” in East Camden, where the vacancy rate is now lower than the rest of the city’s. The nonprofit uses donations and grants to buy and fix eyesore houses, then sells them to locals.
Each buyer gets one-on-one counseling throughout the process for $55. So far, the nonprofit has rescued nearly 1,000 abandoned homes and repaired another 464.
Pilar Hogan Closkey, the program’s director, met with the Ducktown Neighborhood Association a few weeks ago to share how the same model could be used in Atlantic City.
Its local roots and goal of changing entire blocks is what has made it successful, she says.
“Residents of neighborhoods know so much more about what’s happening on their block and can impart that knowledge,” Closkey said. “It’s very locally driven.”
Jaimee Ruggiero’s Egg Harbor Township home isn’t usually quiet in the afternoons.
Family dance sessions and singing break out frequently, especially after 4 p.m., when her youngest son, Noah, gets off the bus from H. Russell Swift Elementary School.
Noah, 9, has Down syndrome and is the youngest in a family of five children Jaimee and her husband have joined together.
Parenting a child with a disability while balancing a blended family has its challenges, but Jaimee has learned to find joy in all the noise.
“I think we laugh more than anything,” she said.
Jaimee, 39, and her husband, Jason Ruggiero, 47, started their family together when they got married about 10 years ago. He brought three of his own children: Jaden, 12, Joceyln, 14, and Kaleigh, 18. Jaimee brought her daughter Grace Catalano, 18. Together, the couple had Noah, and they’ve been a team ever since.
“He’s kind of like the glue that keeps us all together,” Jaimee said.
She sees some of the challenges as the same that come with parenting any child.
“Parenting a child with special needs is different, but parenting each child is different. They all have their own personalities,” she said. “What works for one does not work for the other. It’s not harder. It’s just different.”
Grace is mature and self-sufficient; Kaleigh is outgoing; Joselyn likes to dive in and help, and Jaden plays soccer and video games.
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“It’s molding individual people into being the best versions of themselves, trying to take each child and encourage them to be the best they can be,” she said.
And that goes for Noah, too.
“We push him to want to be as good as he can be and go out into the world one day and be able to function and socialize,” she said, “but we also enjoy all those little things.”
They have different schedules and don’t live at the home all the time, but they talk about how they work together when it comes to Noah.
Jaden helps his brother get ready for bed, Kayleigh leads him through their singing sessions and Grace takes him to Starbucks.
Jaimee, who works in customer service for South Jersey Gas, gets to be home when Noah gets back from school.
“We’re so much more empathetic now, and I think we’re all better people because of him. Because we’ve been able to see life through a different point of view,” Jaimee said.
It isn’t always easy.
The diagnosis of Down syndrome, which occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21, was hard to handle at first.
She said all her fears quickly went away as she started to see it all as a blessing. Now, she wouldn’t trade her situation for anything.
“It was just this fierce, protective love,” she said.
When Noah was 6 months old, he also developed epilepsy and required a lot of care.
But Jaimee said she and her family have stepped up. They’ve adopted their own independence and a strong team mentality. Noah’s humor and affection make it easy.
“Everyone loves Noah. Everyone wants to be with Noah, so we all spend time with him together,” Grace said.
Sometimes it’s hard for Noah to communicate when he’s upset. Things get loud when he gets a haircut, and he sometimes steals his siblings’ clothes for his own fun. But they all feel like it’s made them better.
“I feel like he’s made us all more patient,” Jocelyn said.
For other mothers, Jamie recommends being laid back and remembering to not sweat the small stuff.
“With Noah, I’ve learned not to look too far into the future because it can be scary because you don’t know what the future holds, but it’s true for all of us,” she said. “So just enjoy the days and the moments.”
Right now, Noah likes to dramatically fall and draw attention from his siblings. He also likes to sing to Ariana Grande songs and dance.
“They don’t realize how fun it is and what a blessing it is. We laugh all day long because of him,” Jaimee said.
For Mother’s Day, Jaimee planned to spend time outside in her garden. If it doesn’t rain, she’ll escape some of the noise she wouldn’t trade for the world.
“Not everybody gets to live this life, and we really are blessed,” she said.
This time it’s real.
The Atlantic City Rail Line is running again.
“It’s been a long time,” said the Rev. Janet Hewes Gasbarro, 71, of Absecon, who was nominated for the NJ Transit board in March. “I hope commuters come back.”
Gasbarro planned to ride the line to Philadelphia with her husband Sunday for a Mother’s Day breakfast.
Sunday marked the first day that’s been possible since the line closed in September for the installation of federally mandated safety equipment, as delays and obfuscation from NJ Transit bred anger and confusion in the public.
Conductors on the Atlantic City Rail Line have continued earning tens of thousands of dollars in overtime in the months since the railroad’s shutdown since September, despite never being reassigned to other routes on NJ Transit’s system, documents show.
It’s been a long eight months.
Frustrated commuters forced to take the bus with a 25 percent discount or carpool screamed at executives in public meetings. Elected officials looking to give their constituents answers wrote blistering letters to the agency’s brass. And the reopening of the line was pushed back multiple times from the original early 2019 timetable.
“I think it’s great it’s gonna start running on Sunday,” said Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic. “But, quite frankly, we shouldn’t have had to scream and yell to make this happen.”
With the reopening Sunday, many who use the line for work and other reasons were eager to get back on a reliable schedule. Still, some elected officials and riders have expressed concerns about a possible dip in ridership stemming from the extended closure.
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The line’s schedule was adjusted to include earlier train times to accommodate commuters, but the possibility remains that some former riders have found new jobs or an easier commute in driving.
“The people that I spoke to, there’s very few of them that are coming back,” said Carol Stephens, 60, of Galloway Township, who rode the line for 28 years to her paralegal job in Camden. “It’s a shame.”
Assemblymen Mazzeo and John Armato, also D-Atlantic, said an advertising push could help make up for lost time.
“We have never seen an advertisement for the train that goes from Philadelphia to Atlantic City,” Armato said. “They have to market this a lot better.”
Annual ridership on the line dropped from 1.38 million in 2011 to less than 1 million in 2017, according to NJ Transit. It was down another 4.1% in 2018 before the service was suspended.
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NJ Transit needs to make it clear the line is a “worthwhile” commuting option, Mazzeo said, “so the ridership we lost (during the shutdown) will come back to the train again.”
Stephens isn’t going anywhere, at least. The new schedule — which moves two new run times to the morning and axes late-night runs — works for her. Carpooling was expensive, and the bus ride felt interminable.
“I prefer the train because I don’t want to put the miles on my car, and it’s also cheaper,” she said.
The release of the new schedule accompanied Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement that the line would open May 12, instead of the previously announced May 24. It was a blip of good press for the agency after a long winter battling criticism alleging it mishandled the implementation of safety mechanisms that were first mandated years ago.
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“As part of an effort to provide more reliable and frequent service for Atlantic City area commuters, the Atlantic City Rail Line will resume with an improved schedule to better match service with customer demand, while maintaining the same number of trains in each direction from the prior schedule,” said NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder.
Criticism focused on the fact that only the Atlantic City line and the Princeton Dinky were shut down, even though all trains needed to have positive train control technology installed.
Some critics thought the shutdown was a cover for a permanent closure that would eventually be announced due to shrinking ridership.
It seemed the anger was fizzling out with the reopening day approaching. Then, on May 7, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that sidelined conductors racked up more than $164,000 in overtime pay while the trains sat dormant. NJ Transit said the workers were needed to assist passengers at stations who were unfamiliar with the bus.
A lawsuit filed last week by an Atlantic City man claims a corrections officer assaulted him during his time at Bayside Prison in Maurice River Township two years ago.
Stevens said she often saw conductors stationed at Lindenwold sitting in their cars. When she requested help, she said, they were of no use. The news concerned officials, too.
“It didn’t seem like a great use of their workforce,” Armato said.
Others are simply relieved.
Robert McNulty, 68, of Egg Harbor Township, is a veteran who took the train periodically to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Philadelphia for medical treatment. He had to arrange rides over the winter but plans to take the train to the city May 17.
“It’s long overdue, it’s long overdue,” McNulty said. “It’s a lot easier to go by train to Philadelphia, especially if you have any kind of ailments. You don’t feel like driving yourself.”